AUGUSTA — A legislative panel wants to question current and former state officials who helped broker a deal in which three state-owned houses in Thomaston were sold to the warden of the Maine State Prison for a fraction of their assessed value.

The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee reviewed a preliminary report Tuesday from the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Director Beth Ashcroft presented a time line of events in the sale of five acres and three houses to Patricia Barnhart, warden of the state prison in Warren.

Attorney General William Schneider determined earlier this month that the sale violated a state law prohibiting state employees from having a financial interest in state contracts.

The state sold the property to Barnhart on June 9 for $175,000. The town had assessed the property’s taxable value at $512,263, according to a tax card that is part of state records released recently.

The terms of the sale required Barnhart to lease one of the houses to the state for $1 a year for four years, and required the state to continue to provide lawn mowing, landscaping and snow removal on the property.

Sawin Millett, who became commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services in late January, told the lawmakers that he takes responsibility for the sale.

Before he took over as commissioner, Millett was a member of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, which voted in 2010 to require the state to sell enough property to raise $1.5 million to help balance the budget.

“We were simply looking at a budgetary figure that was probably higher than it should have been,” he said.

Millett said he should have asked more questions about the proposed sale in Thomaston when he took over as commissioner.

“I will take full responsibility for not pursuing it directly,” he said. “We missed it. We should not have.”

Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the Senate chair of the Government Oversight Committee, noted that Millett took over as commissioner well after the sale was under way. He said the committee wants to hear from the people who negotiated the sale dating back to September.

The property was not marketed, and no public notices were posted about the available homes and land.

“I find this disturbing, that this deal was done behind closed doors,” Katz said, “that a fairly large group of experienced people didn’t see some red flags in this. I think we should ask these people to come in and explain how this could happen.”

Those who will be called before the committee are:

Ellen Schneiter, former acting commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

Chip Gavin, former director of the Bureau of General Services.

Bill Leet, director of leased space.

Denise Lord, former deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

Barnhart, the prison warden.

Jon Leahy and Chris Paszyc of CBRE/The Boulos Co., the firm that was hired to market and sell the property for the state.

The meeting is scheduled for Aug. 16.

Committee members expressed concern about the part of the deal that would have kept the Department of Corrections in charge of mowing the grass and clearing the snow. While it was assumed that the work would be done by prison inmates, Ashcroft said, it wasn’t spelled out in the agreement.

“That strikes me as very peculiar, that (the warden) would even try that,” said Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro.

Millett outlined several steps that will be taken from now on with sales of state-owned properties.

The Attorney General’s Office will review all draft purchase-and-sale agreements, a committee will be formed to review proposed contracts, and an annual real estate sales report will be given to lawmakers and the governor.

“I do want to take full responsibility for missing the conflict of interest,” Millett said. “These procedures, going forward, will obviate that ever happening again.”

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]